Jan 5, 2021 - Science

A 2021 space odyssey

The Moon in grey
Photo: NASA/JPL/Northwestern University

Space fans have a lot to look forward to this year as the space industry builds on the momentum that pushed it to a record-setting 2020 despite the coronavirus pandemic.

What's happening: Multiple countries are headed to Mars, and several new missions to other destinations are expected to launch.

1) Mars: Three missions — NASA's Perseverance rover, China's Mars mission and the United Arab Emirates' Hope orbiter — are expected to make it to Mars in February.

2) The Moon: NASA has plans to launch its first uncrewed Artemis mission around the Moon by the end of the year using its Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule.

  • Yes, but: The space agency still has multiple tests to clear ahead of that flight, with more possible delays expected for the rocket and capsule.
  • Other parts of NASA's lunar plans are expected to move ahead, with the selection of a company or companies to build a human lunar lander and private companies aiming to send uncrewed missions to the Moon.

3) Earth's orbit: Boeing is expected to launch an uncrewed test of its Starliner capsule and possibly its first crewed mission to the International Space Station.

  • Axiom, a company planning to one day build a private space station, is working to launch its first crewed mission using a SpaceX Crew Dragon to the space station as well.
  • China is expected to launch the Tianhe module of its space station — slated to be fully built and in orbit around Earth by 2023.

4) Deep space: NASA is also planning to launch the DART probe designed to help scientists learn more about how to redirect an asteroid if a dangerous one is ever found on a collision course with Earth.

  • Another NASA mission, named Lucy is also scheduled for launch this year on a mission to study a group of interesting asteroids orbiting Jupiter.
  • NASA is also planning to launch the James Webb Space Telescope — Hubble's successor — to learn more about the evolution of the universe and possibly characterize potentially habitable planets around other stars.

What to watch: It’s possible not one but two companies — Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin — could launch their first paying customers to suborbital space this year.

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